Thursday, December 16, 2010

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Paperback: 256 pages
· Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics (2006)
· Price: $15.99
· ISBN-10: 0061120065
· ISBN-13: 978-0061120060

From time to time, I come across a book that makes me moan for all the good reviews I’ve written, rows of stars and high marks I’ve given, because now I need more and they’ve all been used up for lesser work. More stars, more high marks, needed here. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is such a book. And I knew it the moment I opened it to the first page, the first line, that I had come across an author of extraordinary mastery of her art.

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

"Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”

That much, and my rear is planted firmly in favorite reading seat, and I am wide-eyed and ready for the reading long haul. I am intrigued, too, by the history of the author, a black woman (1891-1960) who received very little recognition in her day, but only much later, around the 50th anniversary of this work that was originally published in 1937, receiving the recognition she so richly deserved. Alas, post mortem. That she is a woman and that she is black no doubt contributed to this lack of recognition (although I understand some of her greatest critics came from her own race), and it seems only right that she was brought into the light, rediscovered in 1975, by another black woman, Alice Walker. The novel is now considered a classic in black literature, and I can attest to my years of working in academia, that this book was a regular in literature classes. Too often, substandard books are presented in the classroom as worthy reading (even as educational achievement levels continue to drop), but with Hurston, any student will find much to learn—about literature, about life.

One of the criticisms of Hurston in her day was that she wrote about blacks as a separate people in a separate world, and in this novel, too, we are introduced to a black cast in a black town, and there are very nearly no white faces on this stage anywhere. Unrealistic? Perhaps. Yet I come from a small ethnic group, too, and even while surrounded by masses of others, I can agree that we in our group can become at least temporarily blind to others around us, creating our own world, our own dynamics, relating in our own manner. I had no trouble accepting her all black town, her all black world.

Hurston’s literary style is, no better way to put it, feminine. I mean that in its very best measure: beautiful, highly sensitive, deeply emotional, bolstered with a quiet strength and steely endurance. She notes the detail in everything, and holding that detail up to light, her writing comes alive and off the page. She doesn’t just tell her story. She points out lessons of life, goes deep with introspection, and with a few deft strokes, paints a picture that moves the reader to become someone else than before reading the book.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is the story of Janie Crawford, a memorable young black woman who is somehow always a little apart from what is going on around her. She accepts what she must, but is quickly convinced to break rules and shake taboos to move toward something better. Her story is one of ostracism even among her own, because she isn’t willing to roll over and give in, and because she is striking in appearance. Jealousy brings out the uglier traits in lesser sorts. She is not only a dreamer, but a thinker, and so she rolls ideas around in her head until she comes up with answers, or is at least ready to hunt them down.

Idealists like that will get their hearts knocked up and broken, and so does Janie hers. She assumes the best, and is married, as women then had no other choice. She expects to be loved, and for a short while, she seems to be. Turns out something less than love, however, and she submits to humiliation, to verbal abuse, even the occasional beating, but with spirit remaining strong if hidden inside. This is no weak woman. A strong woman is sometimes silent. A strong woman sometimes submits to abuse, bows her head to it, hopes for the best, works to keep love alive, but when it does not, she still walks away whole, if bruised and wiser.

Burying one husband, a man who seemed good and honest at first, but turned out to be abusive with the passage of time, Janie “irons her face” to show the proper emotion, suitable for public viewing. Hurston describes her heroine’s vow to remain alone now that she is free, yet over time, knowing an occasional longing again for good company. Janie contemplates the nature of love, and that most people don't really love at all, but emote something else that is more about control, jealousy, projection of one's own ills and hidden fears. A grandmother that was overprotective, for instance, didn't really love her at all, because love would have encouraged Janie to see a broader horizon for herself. It is a strong example of Hurston’s skill at bringing her character to life:

“Most of the day she was at the store, but at night she was there at the big house and sometimes it creaked and cried all night under the weight of lonesomeness. Then she’d lie awake in bed asking lonesomeness some questions. She asked if she wanted to leave and go back where she had come from and try to find her mother. Maybe tend her grandmother’s grave. Sort of look over the old stomping ground generally. Digging around inside herself like that she found that she had no interest in that seldom-seen mother at all. She hated her grandmother and had hidden it from herself all these years under a cloak of pity. She had been getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people; it was important to all the world that she should find them and they find her. But she had been whipped like a cur dog, and run off down a back road after things. It was all according to the way you see things. Some people could look at a mud-puddle and see an ocean with ships. But Nanny belonged to that other kind that loved to deal in scraps. Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon—for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way behind you—and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her. She hated the old woman who had twisted her so in the name of love. Most humans didn’t love one another nohow, and this mislove was so strong that even common blood couldn’t overcome it all the time. She had found a jewel down inside herself and she had wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around. But she had been set in the market-place to sell. Been set for still-bait. When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into a million pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine.”

For Janie, there is more than one love story, but only one real love. When she meets a man called Tea Cake, something of a rule breaker himself, the best in her surfaces for good. She finds a reflected shine. He may not suit the ideas of others of a good man—he’s something of a gambler, a wanderer, a dreamer, too—but he’s a mirror reflection of Janie. Their story is a thing of beauty, right to a heartbreaking ending, with the right measure of grit, not one grain too sweet.

Enriching the story are portraits of others, those who share the same skin color yet are racists against their own race, and portraits of gossips, cheaters, thieves, and generally broken souls. Yet it is those that shine and hum that become most memorable to the reader—the true friends, the quiet heroes who choose integrity over ease, and the hearts that know mercy.

Hurston is a wonderful writer, but also a wonderful observer of human nature. Intertwining the two, her work becomes art. Sidenote, that I saw the movie years ago, quickly forgot it, and was generally unmoved by it. This story is meant to be read, not viewed, because it is Hurston's use of language that creates the masterpiece.

~from The Smoking Poet, Winter 2010-2011 Issue

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